Hundreds of chairs were filled at a Friends University auditorium on Thursday evening as Democrat James Thompson and Libertarian Chris Rockhold squared off in a debate for the 4th Congressional District special election.
A vacant seat between them was for Republican candidate Ron Estes, who did not attend.
Both candidates blasted Estes for his absence. The state Republican Party chairman called the forum “political theater.”
The debate was sponsored by the League of Women Voters and Women for Kansas, with about 250 or so people in attendance.
Never miss a local story.
“I want to work on returning good jobs to the state of Kansas with livable wages, making sure that we’re protecting our education system that’s under attack at the federal and state level and making sure that our veterans are taken care of,” said Thompson, a civil rights attorney.
I want to work on returning good jobs to the state of Kansas with livable wages, making sure that we’re protecting our education system that’s under attack at the federal and state level and making sure that our veterans are taken care of.
Democrat James Thompson
Rockhold, a flight instructor, said he was tired of over-reaching government and “endless war.”
“I wanted to be the person that somebody who is aligned with those values could vote for,” he said.
Health care, education
Thompson called congressional Republicans’ efforts to replace the Affordable Care Act “nothing but a tax credit for the ultra-rich and wealthy.”
“The ACA … does have some problems, but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Thompson said. “We need to make sure that we work on the small problems that we have and don’t take people off of health care.”
Rockhold said he would like to see more options in the marketplace.
“I would like to see people be able to shop across state lines for health insurance,” he said. “I would like to see more private options.”
Both Rockhold and Thompson criticized national security policies of the Trump administration, such as the plan to build a wall on the southern border and a travel ban on residents from certain Muslim-majority countries.
“The wall is a waste of damn money, and we need to put it toward our veterans,” Thompson said.
Both candidates also criticized cuts in the administration’s proposed budget for the federal government.
“We need to start with defense,” Rockhold said. “We have a lot of bigger fish to fry than the National Endowment for the Arts.”
But they differed sharply on school choice policies, such as support for vouchers.
“That money belongs in a public education system,” Thompson said. “Every dime that they take out to give to a rich person so that they can send their kid to private school is … money out of teachers’ pockets.”
Rockhold said schools competing over funding would not spell the end of the public school system.
“That will make them better. That will make them leaner. They will want to hire the best teachers they can get a hold of,” he said, to some boos and shouting from the audience. “Competition is actually a good thing.”
‘Show up and listen’
The Estes campaign said he would be in Topeka on Thursday and Friday for meetings of the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System Board and would not be able to attend the forum.
Rockhold said Estes assumes the district’s support for Republican candidates will continue in the special election.
We’re sending a message to those people who just assume because they carry a letter next to their name that they’re somehow entitled to that job.
Libertarian Chris Rockhold
“We’re sending a message to those people who just assume because they carry a letter next to their name that they’re somehow entitled to that job,” he said.
Thompson asked the crowd at the beginning of the forum: “How many of you believe that a person seeking office should show up and listen?”
Kansas Republican Party chairman Kelly Arnold said in a statement that Thompson was using the “national Democrat playbook of deception.”
Tonight was political theater by a left-wing organization desperate to create fake news to prop up a failing campaign by a Bernie Sanders supporter who is hopelessly out of touch with the mainstream of Kansas.
Kelly Arnold, Kansas Republican Party chairman
“Tonight was political theater by … a Bernie Sanders supporter who is hopelessly out of touch with the mainstream of Kansas,” Arnold said.
The three candidates are vying for the 4th District congressional seat vacated by former Rep. Mike Pompeo, who became the director of the Central Intelligence Agency in January.
The deadline to register to vote is Tuesday. Early in-person voting in Sedgwick County begins on March 27. The special election is April 11.